There was a time when denominational bodies didn't get along. Then came the ecumenical movement, which sought to bridge the gaps. Organizations like the Federal Council of Churches and then the National Council of Churches, along with the World Council and related bodies. There were merger attempts and conversations about creating a united church. In what appears to be a post-denominational era, ecumenism seems to be a quaint concern. Bodies like the National Council are a shadow of their former selves. So, what is the future of the ecumenical movement? Has it matured to the point that the issue no longer stands? Or is there still a place for the conversation? If so, in what forms?
Martin Marty responds to a Christian Century news item that dashes hopes for an "Ecumenical Spring." He gives some context for the conversation. So, what do you think -- is there need for an ecumenical movement within the broad Christian community? Or should our greater focus be on interfaith issues?
-- Martin E. Marty
“Hopes for an ‘Ecumenical Spring’” was a Christian Century headline above a report by Adelle M. Banks of the Religion News Service. Her report spelled out why such hopes are wan, if not desperate. Three samples: The National Council of Churches has shrunk from 400 staffers in its prime to fewer than twenty today. Churches Uniting in Christ closed its office doors in 2010 and has lost one of its major denominations. Christian Churches Together has “struggled.” Monitor and assess the news of the separate church bodies and you will find few folks mourning or, indeed, “planting” so there can be some sprouts in an “ecumenical spring.” Do people in parishes know of the declines and demises? Would they care, if they did know? If so, what should they do?
The modern ecumenical organizing began just over a century ago, in a very different world. The councils and federations and conferences served well for decades. Ecumenism was “the great new fact of the era,” according to wise Archbishop William Temple, half an era ago. Let me touch on various assessments of why so much has changed, beginning with the denominations or church bodies which made and make up the ecumenical bodies (whose smaller staffs usually include able and faithful people.)
For me, a central reason was illustrated in the press room at the Faith and Order (sub-WCC) meeting at Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1960, when I first got up close to ecumenical doings. I tell the story often: The participants were defining Christian unity: “all in each place who confess Christ Jesus as Lord. . . [should come to] a fully committed fellowship.” The errant typist gave us in the press a draft-release that said we were “to come to a full committee fellowship.” Ecumenism seemed to be the task of bureaus, task forces, commissions, but it was grasped heartily by most of the faithful.
The offense caused by denominational hostility is less relevant today, when denominations get along fairly well; the destructive conflict today is within the communions. Catholics do not fight Methodists any more; Catholics are in conflict with Catholics, [“United”] Methodists fight Methodists. Homework is needed desperately.
The drama of separation, suspicion, and conflict shifted when energies were transferred from within Christianity to Christianity in its relation to other faiths. Many Christians yawn when [if?] they hear of tensions among South Asian or South African Christian churches, while the urgent scene now faces Muslims against Christians, Christians against Jews. “Interfaith” ventures are more promising than “Ecumenical” ones.
Note: much has been achieved, as ecumenical programs are on a new plateau and are taken for granted. Some leaders in the ecumenical church bodies, scorned now for their moderation when their cutting edges are dulled, urge members to look again. A friend asks “What are Christians in mainline and moderate and (gulp!) liberal styles griping about. They won!” Christians to their right often came out of their isolation in ways influenced by ecumenical experiments. As those who stood off adapt to “modernity,” they adopt approaches practiced by ecumenical pioneers through a century.
Sociological analysis and historical reviews should not soothe anyone, say the profoundly committed ecumenists. The Gospel and other New Testament scenarios consistently keep promises of Christian unity and commands to realize those promises in the minds and programs of Christians of all sorts. They simply cannot pretend their way back into cultures of 1910 or 1960 and proceed from there. Who’s “planting” for spring?
Frank Newport, “Mississippi Is Most Religious U.S. State: Vermont and New Hampshire are the least religious states,” Gallup, March 27, 2012.
Adelle M. Banks, “Hopes for an ‘Ecumenical Spring’,” Christian Century, March 15, 2012.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.